Power outages frustrate Talkeetna businesses

Megan Edge

It's the time of year when Talkeetna has a constant stream of visitors. Tourists and campers all seem to be eager to experience the character and qualities unique to the little town off of the Parks Highway. They arrive by plane, train and automobile, supporting the local economy -- as long as the power stays on.

"It's a nightmare," said Mountain High Pizza Pie owner Todd Basilone. "We have regular power outages that are just absurd. We have blackouts that go on and on. It can put me out of business for two to four hours. I mean, if we are busy, though, the power will go out."

The problem, Basilone said, has been going on for years. When the town had a smaller population and was less of a tourist hot spot, it wasn't so bad, he said. But according to the pizza shop owner, in recent years, it's gotten worse and put more of a damper on his business.

He recalled last Fourth of July weekend, one of the busiest times of the year, when the power went out for about four hours.

Each Talkeetna resident has a different estimate of how long an outage can last -- anywhere from minutes to hours. Basilone said the local utility, Matanuska Electric Association, responds in a timely manner but he's tired of losing power to essential kitchen tools like his refrigerator.

"I think we are all just used to it," said Lauri Stec, a manager at Nagley's General Store. "We all kind of laugh because the times of year it happens doesn't make sense."

Anita Golton, owner of the Flying Squirrel Bakery Cafe, chuckled as she described some of the times when her business loses light and the use of the bathroom. She said although one would expect to lose power when the snow is weighing heavily on power lines, that's not the case in Talkeetna. Instead, it happens during the warm and sunny tourist season, when profit peaks for most area businesses.

"I see a fair number of people pulling in the parking lot and seeing the lights are out and not making it in the door," said Golton. "What we do is we tell people they can still take things to go: baked goods, sandwiches and soups."

At Denali Zip Line Tours, the loss of power means employees can't book tours, which can cause them to lose anywhere from $500 to $1,000 in one outage, according to employee Mollie West.

And workers at Nagley's -- known as the home to notable cat Mayor Stubbs -- can't make espresso or keep things cold, said Stec.

Although Golton, Stec and Basilone all suggested that tourist season -- which, they said also doubles as power outage season -- is plagued by outages, spokeswoman for MEA Julie Estey said she believes winter is worse. She said wet and heavy snow puts too much pressure on nearby power lines.

The most recent outages were caused by people, though, said Estey. She described the incidents as "mishaps" -- accidently digging into a buried line or clearing trees that fall on power lines. She said if people need to clear trees near the lines, MEA will go clear them; it just might take a week or two.

The electric utility is trying to solve the problem, though. Estey said this summer one clearing crew is assigned to the Talkeetna area in an effort to combat the issue. And in the spring, MEA publicly addressed the issue in a town meeting during which representatives from the utility tried to explain the causes and outline possible solutions.

But business owners aren't satisfied with the response. Every time the power goes out, they say, they lose a chunk of potential profit.

"Their response time is really quick, and I am sure there are a lot of factors I don't know about, but it just seems like there should be a solution there," said Basilone.

"It's kind of silly we don't have some sort of independent source of power. If I lose power during a busy time, I am losing a lot of business."

Reach Megan at megan@alaskadispatch.com